Detroit Lions vs. Washington Commanders: Dave Birkett’s scouting report and prediction

Detroit Free Press

Washington Commanders (1-0) at Detroit Lions (0-1)

The coaches: Lions — Dan Campbell (8-21-1 overall, 3-14-1 with Lions); Commanders — Ron Rivera (91-82-1 overall, 15-19 with Commanders).

Last game: Lions lost to Philadelphia Eagles, 38-35. Commanders beat Jacksonville Jaguars, 28-22.

Last meeting: Nov. 15, 2020: Lions won, 30-27.

Key matchups

Lions C Evan Brown vs. Commanders DT Daron Payne: The Lions will be without at least two and possibly all three starters on their interior offensive line as Frank Ragnow (toe) and Hal Vaitai (back) are out and Jonah Jackson is dealing with a finger injury. Brown played well in 12 starts as Ragnow’s backup last season. He’s not as physical as Ragnow, but he’s a heady player who is experienced enough to keep the unit functioning at a high level. Payne benefits from playing next to Jonathan Allen in the middle of Washington’s defensive line. He had one sack and three quarterback hits against the Jaguars, and plays with a high enough motor that he will make the Lions pay if they slide too much protection Allen’s way.

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Commanders WR Curtis Samuel vs. Lions CB Mike Hughes: Samuel had modest production in the opener with eight catches for 55 yards, but he was heavily involved in the Commanders offense after an injury-riddled 2021. Along with his eight catches, Samuel got three carries while playing most of the game out of the slot. The Lions will have their hands full with Washington receivers Terry McLaurin and Jahan Dotson on the outside, especially if Amani Oruwariye does not play, so it will be up to Hughes to limit Samuel’s touches inside. Hughes had two quarterback knockdowns on blitzes last week, according to Pro Football Reference, so the Lions will deploy in a number of ways.

Scouting report

Lions run offense vs. Commanders run defense

Campbell’s admission Friday that the Lions’ injury issues on their offensive line and to running back D’Andre Swift change “the style that which we need to play” was telling. The Lions have built their offense around a dominating offensive line with intentions of featuring Swift in the backfield, but that might not be possible after Swift barely practiced this week because of a sprained ankle.

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Swift was unstoppable last week with the Eagles, rushing for a career-high 144 yards and the Lions want to get him even more involved in the offense through the pass game. If he can’t play or is limited, look for Jamaal Williams to shoulder the rushing load with a heavy dose of Craig Reynolds mixed in. Neither can match Swift’s explosive big-play ability, but both are punishing runners and capable receivers.

Washington struggled to stop Jacksonville’s two-headed backfield of James Robinson and Travis Etienne last week, and does not have the pieces on defense to match up with Swift. The Commanders do, however, have a talented defensive line led by tackles Allen and Payne and they finished eighth against the run (104.4 ypg) last season. Edge: Commanders

Lions pass offense vs. Commanders pass defense

If the Lions do change their mode of attack, that would mean more chances for Jared Goff and a passing game that struggled to get on track last week. Goff completed just 3 of his first 10 passes with an interception against the Eagles and the receiving corps was plagued by drops.

The Lions have a well-rounded receiving corps that could present problems for Washington’s secondary if the protection holds up. Amon-Ra St. Brown can tie the NFL record for most consecutive games (eight) with eight catches Sunday. He has settled in as Goff’s preferred target 18 games into his career, while DJ Chark adds speed on the outside. If Jackson does not play at left guard, the Lions’ starting interior offensive lien could be Drew Forbes, Brown and Dan Skipper.

Washington wins defensively with its four-man rush, and that unit remains formidable even without the injured Chase Young. Allen and Payne are one of the top defensive tackle tandems in the NFL and Montez Sweat has 21 sacks in 43 career games. The Jaguars had success throwing at William Jackson last week, completing seven of eight passes in his coverage area, according to Pro Football Reference. Edge: Lions

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Commanders run offense vs. Lions run defense

Lions linebackers coach Kelvin Sheppard did not hesitate when asked about the strength of the Commanders offense this week. “Oh, the running back,” Sheppard said. “The offense damn near goes through him.”

Antonio Gibson had 18 touchdowns and more than 1,800 yards rushing in his first two seasons, and he’s back in the lead back role with Brian Robinson tending to a gunshot wound after appearing to fall out of favor this summer. Gibson is well-suited for Washington’s zone rushing scheme, so the Lions will have to keep him horizontal as much as possible Sunday. The Commanders have an average or maybe slightly better offensive line, and ex-Lion J.D. McKissic will see time as a change-of-pace back.

The Lions struggled to contain Jalen Hurts and the Eagles’ zone-read scheme last week but had success against more traditional rushing teams in the preseason. Washington quarterback Carson Wentz is active in the bootleg game but not an every-down threat as a runner. The Lions need better play from interior defensive linemen Alim McNeill and Michael Brockers on early downs so they can get after Wentz. Edge: Lions

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Commanders pass offense vs. Lions pass defense

Wentz is on his third team in three seasons after a falling out in Philadelphia in 2020 and another down year with the Indianapolis Colts last season. He is the type of quarterback who can make any throw, but he mixes his wow moments with too many what-was-he-thinking-type passes.

Wentz had a good showing last week with 313 yards passing and four touchdowns, and the Commanders do a good job mixing up personnel in their balanced receiving corps. McLaurin is the most accomplished and dangerous member of the bunch. He torched the Lions for seven catches and 122 yards from scrimmage two seasons ago. Dotson, a rookie first-round pick, caught two touchdowns in his NFL debut last week, and Logan Thomas is reliable tight end.

The Lions’ lone sack last week came from safety Tracy Walker as they did not get a steady pass rush from their defensive line. Aidan Hutchinson and Charles Harris should have more opportunities Sunday against Wentz, who holds onto the ball as long as any quarterback in the league. If Oruwariye can’t play, Will Harris will start at right cornerback and be tested early. Edge: Commanders

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Special teams

The kicking game was a net positive for the Lions last week even if they did not recover their surprise onside kick. Special teams coordinator Dave Fipp continued his strategy of keeping the ball short of the end zone on kickoffs to force returns, and the Lions routinely kept the Eagles short of the 25-yard line. Look for that strategy to continue Sunday against Washington’s Dax Milne.

Jack Fox averaged a net of 43 yards per punt last week and is one of the more reliable punters in the NFL. And the Lions have a strong-legged kicker in Austin Seibert, though they did not attempt a field goal last week. Washington’s Tress Way is three years removed from his Pro Bowl season, but still a dependable punter. And Joey Slye was 23 of 25 on field goals while kicking for three different teams last season. Edge: Lions

Prediction

The Lions are dealing with a lot of injuries to key players, and their participation could sway the outcome of this game. If Swift cannot go, that’s a huge loss for an offense that relies heavily on his game-breaking ability. Up front, Ragnow’s absence will impact both the run game and pass protection, and could force the Lions to resort to more of a short passing attack. Washington is well-built on its defensive line, but the Commanders are mediocre at best and have hitched their wagon to an erratic quarterback who tends to give his opponents the chance at one or two takeaways a game. This is an important game for the Lions. They cannot afford to start 0-2, with two home losses, and have fans jump off their bandwagon early in the season again. I foresee a big game for St. Brown, and if the Lions win the turnover battle they should even their record heading into next week’s NFC North showdown with the Minnesota Vikings. Pick: Lions 28, Commanders 24.

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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